Summary: Don’t require stakeholders to pull information from you. Change Modes. Push it to them instead.
“Bedside manner” is important in healthcare. A doctor with a good bedside manner reassures a patient by acting in a calm, deliberate manner and explaining his actions. He doesn’t soften his message or bend the facts to put the patient at ease– he just makes the information transparent. A good doctor may reach the exact same diagnosis as a bad doctor; the difference is all in the bedside manner.
Project management needs to borrow this concept. Every project addresses an ailment or pain within the company. Every project manager is a doctor who can either choose to spread calm or spread fear throughout the organization by how transparent he or she make the information.
To be specific, here are some things that keep stakeholders up at night:
And just like a worried patient, if a stakeholder is worried about these things, it is their natural inclination – and professional duty – to do whatever they can to make sure that the project is on the right track. If you, as the project manager, aren’t pushing this information to them, then any good stakeholder will try to pull it from you in any way possible. This is a good thing, because keeping this information hidden is risky. But it can be frustrating because it feels like prying. And it is: underneath every email, conversation, and phone call the stakeholder is trying to pull more information from you.
The solution is to change modes. Don’t require stakeholders to pull information from you. Push it to them instead. Be like a doctor with a good bedside manner. The effect is almost immediate. It reassures the stakeholders that you are running things well.
I learned this by experience. Back in 2004, on a year-long project for a financial services client, the project coordinator for the client would habitually hound me with questions and change requests to the project. It was taking up a significant portion of my time, and the unscheduled effort spent on responding to her was actually a risk to completing the project on schedule. As the emails piled up, it became clear that her objective in this was not to understand more about the project, it was to make sure that I was paying attention.
Honestly, she had good reason to be worried, but not because of performance. All she saw was that we delivered milestones on time, but I’m sure that–for her–every deadline was a nailbiter because the only visibility she had into the process was what she pried from me. I was inexperienced, and I did not recognize this pattern of communication as a problem. I just assumed that this was her style.
At a certain point I matured and understood both the situation and a possible solution. I begin sending a weekly friday status report at 4pm. Each report followed the same format:
The weekly status report was much less effort than I expected. Realistically, the reports didn’t change that much–80% of the report’s content stayed the same. The effect, however, was dramatic. The client stakeholder backed off, only dipping in when things she had truly important concerns, and our conversations became less frantic, more friendly, and more productive.